Americans vote at the Tenney Park polling place on November 8, 2022 in Madison, Wisconsin.
CNN  — 

In Democratic-leaning and swing states, voters last week delivered an unmistakable cry of resistance to the restrictive Republican social agenda symbolized by the drive to ban abortion.

But in red states where Republicans have actually imposed that agenda over the past two years, GOP governors cruised to reelection without any discernible backlash.

That sharp contrast underscored the depth of the divide between red and blue America and points toward the further partitioning of the nation into divergent, and increasingly hostile, blocs living under fundamentally different rules for civil rights and liberties. Last week’s results could simultaneously embolden red state Republicans to continue advancing the militantly conservative social agenda they have pursued since 2021 on abortion and other issues like voting and book bans – while also making clear that such an agenda is electorally untenable outside of those core GOP states.

“The momentum to regulate social policy is still really strong and perhaps growing in a lot of red states,” says Melissa Deckman, CEO of the Public Religion Research Institute, a non-partisan think tank that studies Americans’ social attitudes. But, she added, “in states where the right to abortion was viewed as being threatened … I think that the pro-choice momentum really helped Democrats.”

On a national basis, Democrats defied the history of big first-term midterm losses for the president’s party – and pervasive media predictions of a towering red wave – by largely reassembling the winning coalition of voters who turned out in massive numbers in 2018 and 2020 to oppose former President Donald Trump’s vision for America. That coalition centered on young voters, people of color and college-educated, urban and less religious adults, with women in each group leaning more Democratic than the men.

Compared to 2018 and 2020, the Democratic performance frayed with each of those groups, according to the exit polls conducted by Edison Research for a consortium of media organizations including CNN. That erosion wasn’t particularly surprising, given that huge majorities in all those groups expressed negative views about the economy and many gave President Joe Biden failing grades for his performance so far, the exit poll found.

More surprising was that despite that undertow, Democrats held just enough of their support from these key voting blocs to post a succession of unexpected victories. In the national exit poll results, Democrats, stunningly, even won a narrow plurality of independent voters, who have almost always voted in big numbers against the party holding the White House at such moments of national discontent. Democrats carried independents by even larger margins in the key blue and purple state governor races, including Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Arizona, the exit polls found.

Those stunning results, even amid such discontent over the economy and the president’s performance, underscored how many voters view the agenda of the Trump-era GOP as a threat to their rights, their values and to democracy itself. That’s precisely the agenda the red states are implementing.

“My main takeaway is there is a pro-freedom, anti-MAGA majority,” says Jenifer Fernandez Ancona, vice-president and chief strategy officer of Way to Win, a liberal group that pressed the party to emphasize the threats to rights in its campaign messaging. “We weren’t sure if it was going to show up again as it did in 2018 and 2020 … but we saw a really resounding answer from American voters: which is we don’t want these MAGA Trump Republicans to take us backward, we want to go forward.”

That sentiment – what Democratic strategist Tom Bonier has called the “Roe wave” – powered resounding Democratic victories in gubernatorial races in blue-leaning or swing states where abortion is now legal. That list included Maine, Connecticut, New York, Michigan, Minnesota, Pennsylvania, Colorado, New Mexico and California. Even Kansas, which defeated a constitutional amendment last summer intended to pave the way toward banning abortion, reelected pro abortion-rights Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly. In several of those states (especially Pennsylvania, Minnesota and Michigan) Democrats scored gains in state legislative races as well.

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  • All of this was especially striking because economic pessimism was pervasive even in these states, with roughly three-fourths or more of voters describing the economy as only fair or poor in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.

    “In places where people have gotten used to having these rights and freedoms, the idea that they would be taken away overpowered other things they might have been concerned about,” says Fernandez Ancona.

    But the “Roe wave” failed to breach the Republican defenses in the states that constitute what could be called “the red citadel” – the 23 states where Republicans held unified control of the government heading into the midterm election. (The sole exception could come in Arizona where Democrat Katie Hobbs is leading Republican Kari Lake in the race to succeed outgoing GOP governor Doug Ducey.)

    Since 2021, those states have moved with startling speed to approve a conservative social agenda that includes restrictions or outright bans on abortion rights; laws making it more difficult to vote; bans on transgender girls playing school sports and on transgender minors receiving gender affirming treatment; censorship of classroom discussion of race, gender and sexual orientation; measures empowering parents who want to ban books from school libraries; and statutes eliminating permitting and training requirements for people who want to carry concealed weapons.

    Across that red terrain, Republican governors who have been at the forefront of championing and implementing that agenda uniformly cruised to reelection. That list included GOP governors in Ohio, Texas, Georgia, Oklahoma, Iowa, Idaho, Tennessee, South Dakota and Florida- – where Ron DeSantis’ blowout win was arguably the party’s highlight on a deeply disappointing night. So far, Republicans have not lost control of any legislative chamber in a state that has banned or restricted abortion (although final results are still pending in Arizona, the GOP is expected to maintain its majorities there.)

    This contrast between the blue and red state outcomes was especially striking because most voters even in the Republican-leaning states have said they believed abortion should remain legal in all or most circumstances, either in the exit polls, or earlier surveys, such as those conducted by PRRI.

    Yet the results left no question that these attitudes played out very differently across the red-blue divide.

    In the blue and purple states, the issue provided Democrats a compounding advantage. Not only did big majorities of voters say they believed abortion should be legal in all or most circumstances, but preponderant majorities of those abortion-rights supporters backed the Democratic candidates for governor, the exit polls found.

    In Michigan and Pennsylvania, for instance, just over three-fifths of voters said abortion should remain mostly legal, the exit polls found. And in each state, more than 80% of those voters backed Michigan Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and Josh Shapiro, the party nominee for an open seat in Pennsylvania, in their landslide victories. In Wisconsin, just over-three fifths of voters also supported legal abortion and about three-fourths of them voted for Democratic Gov. Tony Evers in his narrow win.

    Even in Arizona, where the Republican-controlled state government has passed a 15-week abortion ban, the exit polls again found that just over three-fifths of voters thought abortion should remain legal in most cases, and about three-fourths of them supported Hobbs, the Democrat, in her razor-thin contest against Lake, the Republican.

    In red states, though, Democrats faced a double whammy. While most voters in those places also said they supported legal abortion in the exit polls, those majorities were much tighter than in the blue and purple states. Equally important, in the red states, a much larger share of voters who said abortion should remain legal voted for their Republican governors anyway.

    In Florida, for instance, a 56% majority said abortion should remain mostly legal, but fully one-third of them voted for DeSantis anyway, the exit poll found. In Ohio, 58% said abortion should remain mostly legal, but over two-fifths voted anyway for GOP governor Mike DeWine, who signed the state’s ban on the procedure after six weeks, without exceptions for rape and incest. In Texas and Georgia, just over half of voters said abortion should remain mostly legal; Republican Gov. Greg Abbott in Texas won just under one-fourth of those voters, while Gov. Brian Kemp won just over one-fourth of them in Georgia.

    In Ohio and Florida, DeSantis and DeWine each even won about one-third of women who supported legal abortion; that was about double the share of women with such attitudes who backed Republican governor candidates Tudor Dixon in Michigan and Doug Mastriano in Pennsylvania. (Abbott and Kemp finished in between, winning about one-fourth of women who supported abortion rights.) Overall, after signing abortion bans, DeSantis, DeWine, Kemp and Abbott all won White women in their states by big margins; Kemp and DeWine each carried about seven-in-ten of them.

    Likewise, DeSantis, DeWine and Kemp each won about one-third of college educated white voters who said abortion should remain legal, and Abbott captured more than one fourth of them. By contrast Dixon, Mastriano and Tim Michels, the losing GOP gubernatorial nominee in Wisconsin, each won only about one-sixth of such voters.

    Matt Mackowiak, a Republican strategist and the party chair in Travis County, Texas, was not surprised by the success of the red state GOP governors at holding so many voters who supported abortion rights. That was exactly what he predicted to me last summer after the Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe triggered a complete ban on abortion in Texas that polls showed most voters there opposed to. “In those red states you are dealing with Republican incumbent governors that people were looking at not just through the lens of abortion,” he says. “You have strong governors who had broad support, who had legislative success, and whose states are really doing reasonably well.” Other issues such as crime and abortion mattered more to Republican voters, he argued. Deckman agreed: while the specific abortion bans may have been unpopular even in red states, she says, the GOP governors who signed them “have a constituency for whom … it’s getting lost in the larger political calculus.”

    In mirror image, Democratic analysts believe that in the blue and purple states, most voters also folded abortion into a more comprehensive assessment of the candidates. Only in those places, they believe, more voters tended to see a candidate’s desire to ban or severely restrict abortion as a marker of a broader cultural agenda unacceptable to them.

    “It’s not just abortion,” says Democratic pollster John Anzalone, who served as one of Biden’s lead pollsters in the 2020 campaign. “Their extreme views on abortion are a signal to these voters that … you have got to be extreme on a bunch of other things that would make me just as uncomfortable. I think those late-breaking voters … really did vote against extremism.”

    No blue state has approved any of the conservative measures on abortion, LGBTQ and voting rights and other issues that have proliferated in red states – and, after last week’s results, the prospect of those blue states doing so any time soon has essentially vanished.

    Yet red state Republicans will likely feel emboldened to push further on their path. With voters expanding their majorities, Republicans in the Florida state legislature are already talking about tightening the 15-week ban on abortion DeSantis signed earlier this year. Conservative Texas state legislators have floated proposals to bar companies from doing business in the state if they fund out-of-state travel for local workers seeking abortions.

    Veteran GOP pollster Whit Ayres says this separation testifies to the value of allowing states to set their own rules on contentious social issues, particularly abortion. This “is exactly why allowing the states to follow their own cultural values on such an emotionally fraught issue is a wise decision in a federal political system,” Ayres says. “That’s why Roe v. Wade was so problematic as a national policy because values differ so dramatically among the states that it is impossible to adopt a national abortion policy that will be supported in each of the states.”

    Abortion rights supporters – and advocates on other issues such as LGBTQ rights or free expression – counter that it should be no more acceptable to allow states to infringe such basic rights now than it was to allow some of them to impose racial segregation through most of the 20th century.

    In any case, this precarious equilibrium may not last. Although Democrats likely will not have the votes to pass through Congress legislation restoring abortion rights in every state (or overriding the red state actions on other fronts such as voting and LGBTQ rights), their stunningly strong showing across the blue and purple battlefields will encourage the party to continue pushing for such measures in the 2024 campaign. Conversely, as I’ve written, Congressional Republicans, with little notice, have introduced a flotilla of proposals to impose onto blue states the red state social restrictions on abortion and other issues, such as the prohibitions DeSantis championed on teachers discussing sexual orientation particularly in early grades.

    One critical question facing the GOP may be whether any candidate can emerge from the party’s 2024 presidential nominating process without pledging to sign some sort of nationwide ban on abortion – as Republicans have already proposed in both the House and the Senate. Such a pledge may be indispensable for winning the nomination. But Tuesday’s results signal that, absent a deeper economic collapse, it could be a potentially insurmountable general election obstacle to winning Michigan and Pennsylvania, and possibly Wisconsin and Arizona as well.

    “The pieces are in place for us to be able to have this coalition mobilize again in 2024,” says Fernandez Ancona. That’s especially true, she notes, because young voters, who gave Democrats big majorities last week and preponderantly support abortion rights, almost certainly will constitute a larger share of the electorate in 2024 than they did this year.

    But at the same time Fernandez Ancona sees reasons for optimism for Democrats about the presidential race in 2024, she acknowledges that Tuesday’s results show “it’s going to take much longer to build the kind of power” to challenge the GOP dominance in red states.

    More than ever after this year’s stunning election results, however, red and blue America look like two separate nations, hurtling toward antithetical and ominously incompatible visions of what the country should be.